Summary: To take the Internet to the next level, users must begin posting their own material rather than simply consuming content or distributing copyrighted material. Unfortunately most people are poor writers and even worse at authoring other media. Solutions include structured creation, selection-based media, and teaching content creation in schools.
The first decade of Web publishing was dominated by professionally created websites. Perhaps as a result, some people view Web publishing as unidirectional and use broadcast-oriented terms like "eyeballs" and "consumers" to refer to users.
However, the people who populate the Web are not just consumers. They are users, customers, and producers.
The hot buzzword among VCs these days is P2P (peer-to-peer), which finally recognizes the need for users to contribute to the Web, rather than just consume its content. Unfortunately most discussion about P2P focuses on products like Napster, which simply lets users swap content they didn't create.
Distributing copies of other peoples' creations without permission will never be a great use of the Internet. Whatever the courts decide, in my view it is certainly a moral copyright violation to surreptitiously take and spread the fruit of someone else's labor.
In any case, regular folks must be able to create their own content and contribute it to the Internet. This sounds easy enough, but is actually quite a challenge. The biggest problem is that most people are (and always have been) bad content creators. That's why we have professional writers, graphic designers, filmmakers, speakers, musicians, and other types of media professionals. When an average person tries to create content, they typically don't have much to say and what they do say is often said badly.
The vast wasteland of Geocities confirms this. Giving users a home-page editing program does not turn them into good writers.
That said, Geocities also contains some gems. Many people have interesting stories to tell or have expertise in highly specialized fields. Even when people don't have material that the world might find of interest, they often have content to share that is very important to a few people, such as their family and friends. The beauty of the Web is that it supports narrowcasting and the posting of pages that only a handful of people might read.
How can we increase the number of people who contribute content to the Web? I see a few promising approaches.
A blank piece of paper creates writer's block.
An empty, pageless website is worse still.
Structured creation replaces the blank screen with an outline or other type of preconstructed content that users can add to gradually.
- By showing slots for text, a structured creation tool guides users through content development.
- Letting users create small bits and pieces of content makes the job less intimidating than having to create a whole site all at once.
The review-entry screen at Epinions is a simple example of structured creation. Rather than just saying, "post your review here," Epinions has special one-line fields where users describe what's best and worst about the product. They can also rate product quality using a set of radio buttons and answer more detailed questions. The questions and ratings vary according to product category. For example, in the computers category, users are asked to rate product usability on a scale ranging from "impossible to use" to "piece of cake."
Dan Bricklin's Trellix Web authoring tool goes even further. Users create content from templates that always produce a complete Web page, no matter how little content is entered. The more you edit, the better it gets, of course, but you are never obliged to suffer through a wizard of indeterminate length.
As the old human-factors lesson teaches us, selecting and modifying something that exists is much easier than creating from scratch. In this spirit, content creation need not involve actual creation: Users can develop interesting content by selecting from a set of available options.
A service like Octopus lets users compose intricate pages by combining clippings from sites all over the Web. You might view the results as personal portals that transcend the limited options offered by legacy portals. Or, given that Octopus lets users publish their creations, you could view the service as letting users express their interests by editing pages rather than writing them. (Update October 2002: unfortunately Octopus died in the dot-com crash; too bad, it was one of the better ideas.)
The most promising example of selection-based media is the publishing of photographs on the Web.
At the recent DEMOmobile 2000 conference, Philippe Kahn of Borland fame demonstrated his latest product: wireless digital photography from LightSurf. The main product is a tiny camera that plugs into a cellphone and seamlessly transmits photos to the Web.
As an experienced demo-presenter, Kahn obviously knows how to talk over the weak points, which in this case include enormous delays in transmission and murky pictures. Rather than a matchbox-sized camera that plugs into a cellphone, I would prefer a good digital camera with built-in Bluetooth or some other way of connecting to an Internet device.
To give Kahn credit, a simple way of getting photographs onto the Web makes it much more likely that people will start including digital photography in their user-created content. Take a traditional snapshot, have it developed, scan it, FTP it to your Web server? Forget it.
Photographs are the ultimate selection-based media. You just snap away and get 10-20 photos of an event, then look at a page with all the photos and select the best shots to publish on the Web.
Picking the best of 20 photos will never make somebody a great photographer, but it will guarantee that the published photo is fairly decent. Selecting the best photo from a group of shots is an easy job.
Contrasting this is the task of editing a one-hour videotape down to three minutes of highlights (which is as much video as anybody can stand watching on a computer). Now we are talking hard work. Even with much-improved video editing tools, the average person will never win an Academy Award for editing — though they will tend to use such editing as their benchmark in viewing. When watching film, viewers inevitably compare it with production values they see on television and in the movie theater. Home video? No, no, no. Unbearable to watch.
Long-Term Hope: Teach Content Creation
Hopefully, schools will soon begin teaching kids how to author hypertext and build good Web content. The ability to communicate online will be a key job skill in the new economy and also an important mechanism for self-actualization.
I don't hold great hopes for success in this area. After all, schools have taught writing for centuries, and writing quality has scarcely evolved at all. On the other hand, many people can in fact write memos that get their point across.
If we reach children while they are young, they are more likely to be better than most adults today at creating their own Web content. Although most may never be great, many will be able to produce good content that will appeal to small audiences. Perhaps most importantly, a few will emerge who not only exploit the possibilities of content creation, but push it to new levels.
See also: readers' comments on this column.